Appalachian Basin

Study: No Definitive Link between Marcellus Shale Development and Health Impacts

A study recently released by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania looked at the impact of Marcellus Shale development on public health in the northeast and southwest regions of Pennsylvania – Bradford, Lycoming, Greene and Washington counties – but found nothing definitive to link drilling with negative health impacts.  Interestingly, the study found that, thanks to economic growth associated with new development, more people had access to health insurance and higher paying jobs, which has positively impacted public health in the state.

To come to this conclusion, the researchers looked at data prior to Marcellus Shale development and then again during development. They focused on trends, and then supplemented the quantitative data with information obtained from regional focus groups held with health, housing, and human service professionals.

Here are some highlights from the report:

  • “Inpatient hospitalizations in the four counties and the two regions increased slightly in the Northern tier and decreased slightly in the southwest, but it is not possible to directly connect this to Marcellus Shale drilling.” (pg. 1; emphasis added)
  • “While the four study counties experienced fluctuations in the percentage of persons enrolled in Medicare, the overall percentage increased from 1999 to 2010 and does not appear to be dependent on the level of drilling activity during the 11-year timeframe. The same holds true for Medicaid.” (pg. 1; emphasis added)
  • “There are no overall trends for injuries in the four study counties or across the two regions; however, there are noticeable increases in injuries associated with falls, motor vehicle accidents, and accidents involving motorcycles. These types of injuries could be related to any type of large-scale construction activity and not necessarily to Marcellus Shale drilling.” (pg. 2)
  • “While there are no trends in injuries reported in the two regions, the increase in the number of EMS complaints is substantial, in some cases increasing by more than 3,000 percent. However, since data are not available on the exact nature of the injuries and complaints cannot be tied directly to drilling activity, it cannot be definitively stated that there is a relationship, although that could be inferred due to the timeframe in which the data were reported.” (pg. 2; emphasis added)

In addition to the data, the report also included commentary from individuals in the community who participated in focus groups. One important point that came out of those discussions was that the increase in employment from the Marcellus Shale industry has led to more individuals having health insurance – a major factor when evaluating the wellbeing of a community.  As one member of the focus group explained,

“…They’ve been great for business. When you speak to our director of occupational health, he will tell you that they are very good payers, that they hold to their standards very tightly, that initially one of the concerns about this developing industry in our areas was these horrendous trauma injuries, but they have not found that to be the case because safety is such a primary concern of the industry. …I was interviewing people within the health system before today and they said that there is a positive trickledown effect when it comes to our payer mix. With the natural gas industry developing and gaining a foothold here, people who were locally employed here and other industries, they are moving into higher paying jobs, which is opening up their old jobs, which typically—employer based health insurance. We’re seeing an improvement in our payer mix. As people then move into their jobs, it’s the shell game, but more people are gaining employer based healthcare as a result.” (pg. 21; emphasis added)

Other research has supported the link between employment and improved health.  For example, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s “Health Policy Snapshot” series recently showed that “a stable, well-paying job leads to better health.” It also noted that employment enables individuals to provide their families with “nutritious foods,” “quality childcare,” and “educational opportunities,” all of which help improve health. According to RWJF, laid-off workers are “54% more likely to have fair or poor health” than those who are employed.

The Center for Rural Pennsylvania report does explain that the “research is exploratory and should not be treated as conclusive.  However, it provides the basis for additional research to determine the relationship of Marcellus Shale development to health and health services use.”

Credible health studies on oil and natural gas development are always valuable, and this one certainly helps to provide a good basis for future research. This report and other previously completed studies show that the oil and gas industry continues to protect the health of residents and workers, all while improving the livelihoods for families in the areas that they operate.


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